The most incisive guide to issues facing the American family today . . . An invaluable resource for anyone wishing to stay on the cutting edge of research on family trends.

-W. Bradford Wilcox
Associate Professor of Sociology, University of Virginia 

The Predatory Nature of Premarital Cohabitation

Bryce J. Christensen and Robert W. Patterson

When the New York Times, which has challenged the social ideal of marriage for decades, runs a guest column in its Sunday edition entitled “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” does it signal a change of heart? Maybe. Indeed, the op-ed contributor, Meg Jay of the University of Virginia, does not back away from evidence that shacking up entails clear risks to marital success that are unrelated to “selection effects,” the trump card of progressive researchers unwilling to admit that certain behaviors are inherently problematic.

A clinical psychologist, Dr. Jay claims those risks arise because cohabitation functions as an alluring trap for unwary young adults. She laments: “Moving from dating to sleeping over to sleeping over a lot to cohabitation can be a gradual slope, one not marked by rings or ceremonies or sometimes even a conversation.” And because men and women remain very different in their perceptions, Jay notes that cohabitants often find themselves living with counterparts that, in normal times, they would never wed:

Women are more likely to view cohabitation as a step toward marriage, while men are more likely to see it as a way to test a relationship or postpone commitment, and this gender asymmetry is associated with negative interactions and lower levels of communication even after the relationship progresses to marriage. One thing men and women do agree on, however, is that their standards for a live-in partner are lower than they are for a spouse.

The downside: “sliding out” of an illicit union is far more difficult than “sliding in”—the terms some researchers use to describe the transition points—as young adults often find themselves unable to get out months or even years later. “It’s like signing up for a credit card with 0 percent interest. At the end of 12 months when the interest goes up to 23 percent you feel stuck because your balance is too high to pay off. In fact, cohabitation can be exactly like that. In behavior economics, it’s called consumer lock-in.”

Given the predatory nature of cohabitation, one would think Dr. Jay would advise young people to bypass the contraption completely and instead follow the proven path toward marital bliss: dating, courtship, engagement, wedding, honeymoon, and housekeeping—in that order. But no, she confirms that the New York Times hasn’t changed its tune; she offers therapeutic psychobabble, presuming that vulnerable and inexperienced young adults can manage the ambiguities of cohabitation: “It’s important to discuss each person’s motivation and commitment level beforehand” and “regularly evaluate constraints that may keep you from leaving” a cohabiting situation.

Too bad Dr. Jay doesn’t encourage her young readers to talk less about their feelings and more about the concrete reasons why the cohabitation trap should be avoided up front and why marriage promises a better way.

(Meg Jay, “The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage,” The New York Times, April 15, 2012).